“If you came upon an effigy mound unmarked and overgrown, an unlikely event in our century but not impossible, you might not even know it was something other than a natural feature of the land.”
It was the first stop on our month-long exploration of the eastern United States. We arrived at the Effigy Mounds National Monument Visitor Center a few minutes before closing and explained to the young Ranger on duty that we really wanted to see the marching bears as early as possible the next morning. She was eager to help and said, “even though the park doesn’t open until 7 am, I can show you how to access the park through a pedestrian gate.’”
Our inspiration to visit the mounds came from the book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History by Paul Schneider (2013. Henry Holt & Company). I was hooked when I read this sentence: “The inescapable essence of bears was all around me.” The author was referring specifically to the Marching Bear Mounds.
What are Effigy Mounds?
While mounds created by Native Americans are found throughout the country, Native Americans known as the Effigy Mounds Builders shaped mounds in the form of an animal - mammals, birds, or reptiles. Birds and bears are the primary effigy mounds found at Effigy Mounds National Monument - birds representing the guardian of the sky and bears representing the guardian of the earth.
Between one and two hundred years ago, surveyors found and documented about 15,000 effigy mounds in Wisconsin and about 10,000 mounds in northeastern Iowa. It’s only because there were so many that there are a few for us to see today. Most mounds were tilled under by farmers as the land was settled in the 1800’s or built over by developers in recent times. Today, thousands of mounds lie under houses, highways, and strip malls, never to be seen again.
Effigy Mounds National Monument was established in 1949, ensuring the protection of effigy mounds created between 840 and 1,400 years ago and the even more common linear and conical mounds created up to 1,000 years earlier.
It was still cool and dark when we arrived at the gate. Our destination was a pleasant one mile hike up a hill. There were detours to Mississippi River overlooks and other mounds but we knew where we wanted to be at sunrise. We could catch those sites on our return to the car.
There was enough moisture in the air and dew on the ground to bring out the scent of the deciduous forest surrounding us. The morning light creeping up on us just added to the beauty. Jamie and I reached the first mound and somehow we automatically split up to absorb the experience in solitude.
There are ten bears, three birds, and two linear mounds in this group. I chose to do a meditative walk around each mound taking in the bird song, the play of light, and the shape of the mound. It was a lot like looking at clouds and letting your imagination run wild. If I looked hard enough I could see different features in each bear depending on the height of the grass and other ground covers.
It was more difficult to imagine the people responsible for making the mounds. Was this a burial mound, a decorative mound, or a ceremonial mound? How many people and how many days went into the making of a mound? How many baskets of soil were moved to create a bear four feet high and over 200 feet long? What did it look like when it was new, before hundreds of years of erosion?
We both felt lucky to have experienced these 200 some-odd mounds protected by the National Park Service. We were off to a good start on our exploration of the Eastern United States.